My niece, K, is nine years old and already the greatest bird watcher I’ve ever met. “There’s a bald eagle! And another one! They’re really fast!” During the ten-minute drive from my mother’s house to Key Vista Nature Park in Pasco County, Florida, K spotted more bald eagles out of the car window than I have seen in my entire life. The trick to spotting a bald eagle, I learned from this adorable prodigy, is to do your spotting when no one else is looking.
Dawn. A piney forest scaled the mountains that peaked above Lake Tahoe. My boots crunched the icy road that led to the Van Sickle Trailhead, crossing the Nevada line and then back into California as I followed the muffled rumble of a woodpecker’s beak against live bark. The forest was still aside my boots, the frigid breeze, and the browsing woodpecker. All else was hushed and white with snow.
Rocks, an old friend, and his fiance had planned an early December wedding in South Lake Tahoe, California. The ceremony was small and intimate, consisting of only family and a few friends. I felt honored that Rocks had included us among those friends and I was eager to see this “California” of which I’ve heard so much.
Rocks was getting married by Lake Tahoe but my wife and I could not find a direct flight from RDU (NC) to RNO (NV). No worries. If traveling to England via Iceland taught me anything, it was make your layovers count.
We shopped around. American Airlines took us through Dallas. Delta took us through Atlanta. But JetBlue? JetBlue took us through New York City…
NEW YORK CITY!
So, could we truly experience one of America’s flagship cities in just over a day? Well, no. Not even close but we made the most of it and learned a little along the way.
All the fall foliage has at last fallen in central NC. I hate to see it end. Autumn has always been my favorite time of year and one of the forces that has slowly nudged me north and east in my life.
I often snap photos of beautiful leaves I see either for iNaturalist or to share with my mother and sister in Florida where they never have a particularly showy autumn. My mom says she’d like to print out the photos I send her, cut them up, and scatter them in her lawn just to have something to rake up.
My uncle calls autumn a period of rest during which the leaves begin their descent to the ground. The leaves know that they are dying but they die to nourish the earth so that future generations can live. Autumn is their peak, so they blaze reds and golds.
May we all blaze bright in our autumnal years.
I think we’ve all had those experiences that, in our memories, come to be defined by a song — a song that ornaments an unforgettable moment — a song that becomes something apart from its beat and melody, something different, and something personal. There was that one song — it hummed in the background of an Icelandair promotional video as my wife napped, reclined in an economy seat with her head rested on my shoulder; it played on the radio as Joy-C (valiantly) got reacquainted with manual transmission; it danced from my lips as we crossed harsh and spectacular grasslands that rose in sudden cliffs and glacial mountains; it bumped from a DJ’s speakers in that pizza joint that has no name; and it has nestled in my head ever since. “Fröken Reykjavík” by Friðrik Dór. That song is perfectly Iceland. I get it. I grock it. I know it and love its every note. The funny thing is, I don’t speak the language.
Late-April snow fell in pouts as our plane landed in Keflavík. Icelandair offers Stopovers, layovers that can be extended up to seven days. This is a brilliant way to get tourists to spend their dollars in your country. On our way back to the US from a conference in London, we took a Stopover and, with a single ticket, flew from London to Keflavík, drove across Iceland, and flew home to the States.
The most amazing thing happened this summer. I held a snake! A perfectly docile, nonvenomous corn snake. Okay, so maybe that doesn’t sound like much but snakes are to me what clowns or heights or gherkins are to fellow overly imaginative, cripplingly irrational people.
This July, I returned to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the Institute at Tremont’s SANCP (Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate Program) Reptiles and Amphibians course. I had so many questions. Why study reptiles AND amphibians in a single course? Why does herpetology exclude avian reptiles (i.e., birds)?
I can’t quite explain my want to become a certified naturalist. I do not intend to make a career of it. Rigorously studying flora and fauna might make me a better volunteer. It might even make me a more rounded and informed citizen of my community, nation and planet. All that sounds great but, really, I enjoy going all-in with like-minded, equally interested and engaged students. I simply love the academic experience and that feels like justification enough.
So, in May, I ponied-up the tuition for my first course in the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate Program (SANCP) hosted by the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (GSMIT).
The SANCP curriculum includes 7 core courses:
- Interpretation and Naturalist Skills (February)
- Birds of the Smokies (May)
- Plants (May)
- Aquatic Natural History (June)
- Reptiles and Amphibians (July)
- Southern Appalachian Ecology (September)
- Mammals (November)
Core courses run from Friday evenings through Sunday afternoons and are scattered throughout the year from February to November. Students can take classes at their leisure and in any order that they see fit. One of my classmates for the 2017 Plants course had begun his naturalist journey in 2012 and was in no hurry to wrap things up. The Birds of the Smokies and Plants courses occur over the same weekend in May each year, meaning that students cannot complete the course in a single calendar year.
While in Philadelphia, skip the cheese steak. The “authentic” Philly is a lie that locals tell unsuspecting tourists. Unless, of course, you appreciate dry-mouth induced by a stale-cardboard hoagie stuffed with slivers of sweat meat scavenged from some poor butcher’s garbage pale and soaked in gas-station-quality nacho cheese. Then, by all means, chug a bottle of Pepto and order that “authentic” cheese steak. If not, no worries. Philly has so much more to offer.
Philadelphia is one of those iconic American cities that every star-spangled road tripper should experience. The Nation’s first capital, home of both Benjamin Franklin and Rocky Balboa, Philadelphia was founded by William Penn (founder of the whole-damn Province of Pennsylvania) in 1682. In a city that boasts and preserves its colonial roots and revolutionary significance, there’s just so much to do and see — the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Reading Terminal Market, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology…
But if you were just passing through — if you could only choose one thing to do in Philadelphia — you really should go to jail.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
– From “London” by William Blake
Two centuries ago, William Blake lamented the systemic ails of a leviathan called London. This April, I visited that beast. Though I had a blast, I sympathize with Blake’s song of experience. So much of London is chartered and paved; so little is wild and green. As much should be expected of the cultural, political mecca that reached its height of influence by sending subjects abroad to colonize and “improve” foreign lands (i.e., plow it over and eradicate the natives).
Four days into the venture, I struck out in search of wilder-things in this concrete jungle.
“It was good to be back in the wilderness again, where everything seems at peace.” – Richard Proenneke
I guess I had a busy winter, which seems like a weak excuse for taking it easy. With birthdays and holidays, I always find it hard to escape during the off-season. I’ve been outside plenty but I haven’t found myself at peace on an empty trail in some months. Barky, Slob and I set out to remedy that injustice as March became April and winter became spring.
Our destination was a chunk of backcountry called Panthertown Valley in the eastern corridor of Nantahala National Forest. If you’ve never heard of Nantahala, you wouldn’t be faulted. It’s tucked in the far southwestern corner of North Carolina and has some flashy neighbors. To the southeast is Gorges State Park. Immediately south is Georgia’s Black Rock Mountains State Park and Chattahoochee National Forest. To the northeast rises NC’s Pisgah National Forest and Mount Mitchell State Park, the tallest temple of earth in the eastern United States. Immediately to the north stretches the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is God’s country.